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BOOK REVIEWS : Beyond Freedom, Captivity Awaits

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The Sacred Night by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a novel translated by Alan Sheridan (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $18.95; 192 pp.)

“The truth is closer to the shadow than to the tree that casts the shadow,” says the blind Consul to the heroine of “The Sacred Night,” Zahra, who has spent the first 20 years of her life as a man “married” to the wretched Fatima, daughter of her vicious and avaricious uncle.

Her father, a tyrannical patriarch, has reared her as a son to boost his ego and foster his pride, as well as to have a “male” heir and thus prevent his property from falling into the hands of his brother and his wife, both of whom he loathes as much as he does his wife and seven other daughters.

On his deathbed, however, the father releases Zahra from the bondage of her false gender. Hoping to escape from her uncle and aunt, the envy of her sisters and the madness of her mother and her “wife,” Zahra runs away from home after burying all relics of her fake and hollow past in her father’s grave.

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Zahra’s journey takes her through dreams and visions, illusions and hallucinations, time and timelessness; it is a journey that ends in an arrival that is also, in a sense, an endlessness.

Along the way Zahra encounters a strange young man with a veiled face who carries her away on horseback, a village populated only by children who never grow old, a faceless man with a soft voice who rapes her, ghosts in a public bath, a large “Seated Woman” and her blind brother who suckles at his sister’s massive breasts and visits whores in a brothel to ease his agony.

It is with these two, the brother and the sister, that Zahra’s destiny lies, and it is there that her brief flight to freedom leads to a captivity from which there is no escape, for it is the captivity of love and sexuality. Zahra’s story does not end here. Another prison awaits her, this time a real one, made of bricks and bars, tangible and definite, and therefore more easy to cope with. Shutting out light and time helps; self-inflicted blindness helps even more.

Set in a Morocco of allegory and surreal imagination, “The Sacred Night” reads like an extended poem and is rich with images and metaphors that are at once tender and fragile yet heavy and portentous, illusive yet rock-solid and real. Ben Jelloun and his characters have their feet firmly planted in this world, but their hearts and their minds are in many different worlds and times that occasionally converge only to drift apart again.

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There is an almost never-ending stock of ancient wisdom in and between the words of this book, which is so strongly in the Eastern school of Sufi mysticism that I am not sure how much of it readers in the West will be able to appreciate or even accept. I found it bold and amusing, tragic and funny, ironic and twisted, yet somehow eerily straightforward. And very moving.

“The Sacred Night,” which won France’s Prix Goncourt after being published in French in 1987, also takes a new and mystifying look at Islam, a much more complicated and multifaceted faith than recent events, both literary and political, may have led some of its critics and observers to surmise. But in the end it is the characters--their hopes, aspirations, weaknesses, strengths--and the land--its dust and sand, houses and one-person lanes, culture and way of life--that dominate the book and mesmerize the reader.

Intelligence, the author believes, is the failure to comprehend the world; appearance the most perverse mask; clarity a delusion; truth the voice more than the words spoken. Ben Jelloun’s voice has the loud and clear ring of truth, despite some weak notes, avoidable repetitions and odd, inappropriate words (the blame for which most likely rests with the translator) in an otherwise delicately crafted rape scene.

In fact, it is the rape that more than anything else brings out the great divide between the perception of the world as seen by the Western, Christian civilization and as experienced by Zahra, the daughter of the East.

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“There was blood on my fingers and between my legs,” Zahra comments, “but I felt neither dirtied nor sullied. I got dressed and went on my way. Something echoed in my head, the sound of a hammer on stone, or a piece of marble. It was the memory of the man’s heartbeat.” And later: “The encounter in the wood had been brutal and blind. There was no feeling or judgment in the memory. It was one adventure among so many others I had had.”

It is the unspoken cruelty of her uncle and the emotional violence of the Seated Woman that really frighten and ultimately humiliate and destroy her.

To the discerning reader, this book will provide more than just another adventure among many. A lot more. But then again, I speak as a true son of the East.


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